Lack of control over air traffic control

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There’s no end in sight to the delays at Norwegian airports that have frustrated airlines and passengers alike all summer. Airlines are demanding reforms within air traffic control systems both in Norway and elsewhere in Europe, while the air traffic controllers complain of excessive overtime needed to offset personnel shortages.

More aircraft are stuck longer on the ground because of delays resulting from a lack of air traffic controllers. Norwegian Air has been among airlines frustrated over chronic shortages. PHOTO: Norwegian Air

Avinor, the state aviation authority that oversees airports and air traffic control in Norway, warned of more delays last weekend and they ended up being worse than many expected. Some flights were delayed up to two hours as a lack of air traffic controllers on duty affected operations at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen plus the Torp airport at Sandefjord and Rygge at Moss, both of which also serve Oslo-area passengers.

Delays have continued most of this week, most recently because of air traffic controllers not only demanding their summer holidays but also because many have called in sick. Some angry travelers have suspected  that the shortage of air traffic controllers is linked to a labour dispute between them and their employer Avinor.

Overtime complaints
On Wednesday, however, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that air traffic controllers regularly work excessive overtime to fill holes in weekly duty rosters. The situation is especially acute in the tower at Gardermoen and at the Oslo Control Center at Røyken, where one controller alone worked 590 hours of overtime last year, according to statistics obtained by nrk.no.

All told, Avinor’s own statistics show that the roughly 110 air traffic controllers at the Røyken control center work nearly 20,000 hours of overtime a year.

“I’m not so sure airline passengers or the airlines want to hear that the controller who’s on the job on lillejulaften (Little Christmas Eve, December 23) has worked the equivalent of nearly four extra months by the end of the year,” Nicholas Lorvik, who represents air traffic controllers at Røyken, told NRK. He claims Avinor bases its work schedules on overtime. He said he’s worked as an air traffic controller since 1998 and claims there’s never been enough people on the job.

“Avinor should be crystal clear over the use of overtime, and it should reveal a lot about the situation,” Lorvik told NRK. Only the extensive use of overtime prevented the kind of delays seen this summer from occurring earlier in the year as well, he said.

Calls for restructuring
Avinor admits it needs at least another 15 full-time air traffic controllers. It’s been called into crisis meetings with airlines but hasn’t been able to promise any improvements. Avinor insists its use of overtime is legal and claims it’s been difficult to get enough air traffic controllers trained and certified while airlines continue to expand routes and flights.

In short, air traffic has increased and there’s not enough people to control it, hence the delays to ensure safety in the skies.

Business leaders, airlines and their passengers are demanding improvement, and propose reducing the number of control centers that need to be staffed. Torbjørn Lothe of employers’ organization NHO told newspaper Aftenposten this week that Europe has 70 control centers compared to just 20 in North America that cover a much larger geographic area. He’s calling for a restructuring of air traffic control systems to make them more efficient.

“It shouldn’t be possible that one person calling in sick can cause air traffic delays for thousands of passengers,” Lothe told NRK. Structural changes around Europe and new technology can also reduce the power air traffic controllers traditionally have had, not just in Norway but in other countries as well such as Spain. Any major changes, though, are unlikely for at least another five years, according to the state transport ministry.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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